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Darren Clarke's club 'so proud' of star ahead of Ryder Cup challenge

By Cate McCurry

He's living the dream and leading the European team as they prepare to renew golf's greatest rivalry.

And as Darren Clarke steps out at the Ryder Cup in Minnesota, some 3,600 miles away in his Co Tyrone hometown hundreds of his club-mates will be proudly watching every swing and putt.

The golfing hero, who faces a career-defining weekend as he captains Team Europe, cut his teeth on the greens at Dungannon Golf Club from a young age.

The 48-year-old has never forgotten the club where his talent was spotted and nurtured, and following his win at the 2011 Open Championship he returned armed with the trophy to meet old friends and fans.

A life-size picture of a beaming Darren proudly holding the Claret Jug greets golfers and visitors at the entrance.

The walls of the club's members' area - named in his honour - are also bedecked with memorabilia, including a montage of photos showcasing his success and a painting of the ninth hole, named the Darren Clarke hole.

Trustee and former president of Dungannon Golf Club Sean T Hughes recalled the moment Darren won his first European Tour event in Belgium in 1993.

"When he won he rang the club and said, 'Buy everyone a drink' - the round cost him £700," he said.

Sean explained that from the age of 13, Darren - whose father, Godfrey, was the club's greenkeeper - practised hitting balls for endless hours. "He could hit balls all day, and we realised back then he was so talented," he added.

"Everyone at the club is very proud that our member, who's an honorary member for life, is the captain of the Ryder Cup team - you can't get better than that. In my captain's year in 1987, Darren was pumping balls into the seventh green.

"At that stage he was being named the George Best of golf because he was so handsome and was also such a star. He made it and he is still making it.

"The Dungannon club members watch every shot he takes because we are so proud of him. That pride goes right through the town as well."

Sean said that Darren helped design six new holes at the club, including the signature ninth hole.

He added: "We are known worldwide because of him. Visitors come here just to see his homeplace."

Chris Jelly, a professional coach at the club, said that the honour of leading the European team showed how well-respected the father-of-two was in golfing circles. He added that the club was "massively proud" of Darren's achievements.

"To have someone from your club as captain in the Ryder Cup is huge," he explained.

"It's brilliant that he comes from our club and it's a real honour that we have an Open champion and Ryder Cup captain."

While some club members reflected on Darren's early talent, others recalled how, as a young man, he also had flair on the rugby pitch while playing for The Royal School Dungannon.

Pat O'Neill, who played with the golf star and his father, was the first person to sponsor a then 17-year-old Darren on a trip to America. "We knew he had great talent back then," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

Club member Jerome Conlon used to play on games machines with Darren after a round of golf.

"He was great back then and even better now," he said.

"We are all looking forward to watching (his players) play this weekend."

Dungannon man Brendan Harvey admitted that while he was not a golfing fan, he was hoping to catch a glimpse of the local star on the television.

"I will watch Darren just to see how (his players) get on," he said.

"We are very proud of him, and he has done very well.

"He seems very down-to-earth and has not forgotten his roots."

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